Writing as a convert

Writing as a convert August 30, 2017
Image via Pixabay
Image via Pixabay

There has been a little bit of a dust-up in the Latin Church recently about converts talking too much, especially about Pope Francis. I am not one to comment on the internal affairs of the Latin Church, and I certainly don’t have much to say about the Bishop of Rome today; his recent ‘magisterial’ comments on liturgical reform, for example, seem to have much more to do with the liturgy of the Latin Church than the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

But the convert debate, I think, has to do with a lot more than the papacy. After Charlottesville, for example, the conversation about how white nationalists like Matthew Heimbach are drawn to Orthodoxy seems to have been revived with a vengeance. In the Eastern Catholic churches, it’s often pointed out that some people in the Latin Church who are disgruntled with liturgical reform wind up in our churches, only to push around like bulls in a china shop to turn Eastern Catholicism into their rad trad fantasy.

All of this recent conversation has made me think about my own writing, especially on this blog. I am, after all, what they call a ‘convert’ too. I grew up going to a Chinese evangelical church on the East Bay in California, and I went to a Pentecostal elementary and middle school. I encountered Catholicism at a Catholic high school, but I proudly survived that as a Protestant, moved to Vancouver, and went through a number of evangelical fashions – charismatic movement, Jesus Movement, New Calvinism – before winding up on the deep end of the realignment of the Anglican Communion. As an Anglican, I learned to be part of a dysfunctional church and wrote about it, and along the way, I also read Catholic and Orthodox theology. In time, people called me ‘more Catholic than the Catholics,’ which is a thing that people only really ever say about Protestants. Holding out for the longest time even though I encountered the Lord powerfully in the Latin Church, I fell into an Eastern Catholic church while praying and protesting in solidarity with Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. That Eastern Catholic church happened to be the Kyivan Church. I was chrismated into it, and then the editor of Patheos Catholic at the time, Sam Rocha, approached me to move my blog over here. I’ve been writing ever since.

I remember how disgruntled some people were when they first encountered my writing. I wrote as a neophyte, and in many ways, I still do. Some called the writing ‘painful’ to read, and I don’t fault them; I was, after all, trying to find my voice. One time, I wrote a close reading of a statement that Archbishop Job of Telmessos gave on the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church; it did not go over well, and when I asked my spiritual father about it, he said that the analysis was so dead on that it was embarrassing for some people to admit that a neophyte had pointed out all of the ideological contradictions in the church that most were content not to see.

At that time, I asked a number of people in the Kyivan Church, including my spiritual father, if I should continue writing. Some, after all, said that I had not been Catholic for very long, that I really should stick to being part of a temple and absorbing the life of the church, and that I should shut up. Now that I have friends in the catechumenate from the evangelical churches, I perfectly sympathize with this position; many converts and converts-to-be are indeed used to being church leaders in their past lives, and it is difficult for us to simply be one of the people, concentrating on our own prayer lives when there is so much to do and the problems are so obvious and there is so much we could do to change the church to evangelize better and sing more enthusiastically and organize socials better.

And yet, I was told by people wiser than me to continue writing. A convert like me, they said, might not get all the sensibilities right all the time, but they said that a convert writing about their experience of conversion and spiritual journeying might actually be helpful for opening up new dimensions of the church. The key, they continued, was to write like it was all prayer. They wanted to read my reflections as I prayed, even though it was written in the accent of a convert. In fact, some of these same people tell me that I still write like an evangelical, and it is true that I have had great success even convincing other evangelicals that I am just a strange Christian who is into rituals but really just another born again, Bible-believing, Christ-following enthusiast.

As I reflect on the convert debate, I have thought about why those who tell me to keep writing say to do so; it is a little counterintuitive. The more I think about it, the more I am coming to the realization that not all writing is created equal. Unfortunately in the Christian churches, writing is often conflated with teaching, and teaching has authority because you read someone’s writing in order to learn from them. This means that if you are writing, you should know things, and if you don’t know things, you should shut up.

But this is not how I have written, I hope. Writing, I have been learning, is about conversation; it is to put something out there so that you can talk about something with people. Liturgically, this makes sense, because as part of the people in the temple, my job is to stand there and pray through singing, alongside other people who are praying and singing. When I sing and when I discuss with people around me how to sing the liturgy better, I am not delivering a homily from the royal doors, and I am not instructing my fellow sisters and brothers on our liturgical work. Instead, we are having a conversation, asking questions, speaking tentatively, vulnerable about ambivalence, trying to get it right together.

Writing is an extension of that liturgical conversation. It is to simply put something out for discussion, to reflect on my experience publicly, to share together in a common life. Even my academic mentors have been telling me to write professionally like this. Academic writing, it turns out, is not about being authoritative. It is about joining the scholarly conversation, which is a lot like liturgical dialogue. Academia, after all, has its roots in the ecclesia.

What I am learning, then, is to write with no authority. Converts, after all, do not have much to offer by way of representing a church’s sensibility; we are still learning to be part of the church years into coming in. But that process is our experience, and I am happy to write about that. There’s not much more I have to say anyway.

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